Chaya Manik Sontakke, Waste Picker, Pune, India

Waste picking was a viable way to feed a family for hardworking Chaya Manik Sontakke—until the recession struck. Widowed with three young children and few options, Chaya turned to waste picking at the age of 20. When she learned about Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), the trade union of waste pickers in Pune, she joined and began selling what she’d collected at Kashtachi Kamai, a cooperative scrap store that offers fair prices, accurate weights, transaction receipts and profit sharing.

She was able to save money in the credit cooperative and send her children to school. When the opportunity arose to collect recyclable waste from Infosys Technologies, one of India’s foremost corporations, Chaya’s daily earnings improved. She formed a group of 14 workers who shared earnings equally.

“Life as a waste picker has never been luxurious, but the Infosys work did transform my workday and bring in a lot of stability. We ate at the company canteen and had regular hours,”she explains. “I saved regularly in the credit co-op and took a loan… to buy a small plot of land.” There, she constructed a two-room house.

Then the recession hit, and company cutbacks meant less waste. Chaya says the quantity of scrap was halved—and so was the waste pickers’ income. “The costs have not gone down. The mini truck costs as much and our group is the same size so we earn less ... and the cost of essential commodities have gone up.”

She has coped by cutting back on meat and fish. Also, she can’t be as liberal with spending on her children’s education. “Sometimes they have to pester me for a week before I get them a note book or a new pen.“Chaya remains strong. “Life is not too bad, but I have seen better, and there may be worse to come. Thankfully I have my own house!”